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Closing Doors

More than two years after fleeing Sri Lanka for the safety of Canada, “Kumar” is still haunted by the memories of a brutal civil war in his homeland.

“Thinking back about the events I am not able to recover from the traumatic experience and unable to collect myself and move on,” he says.

In 2008, Kumar says he and his family were forced to flee their home.

“To save our lives, we had to flee our home to escape from heavy shelling,” he says.

He claims as a last resort he had to escape to Thailand and board a battered freighter called the Ocean Lady with 75 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Together, they endured a stormy 45 day journey, and often feared for their lives.

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“Given all the incidents during the journey, I never thought reaching a shore was at all possible,” he says.

In October 2009 Canadian navy and police intercepted the ship off the coast of Vancouver. But that was only the beginning for Kumar, who spent his first five months in Canada in a medium security prison. Kumar is stilling dreaming of the day he is granted refugee status.

“Happiness would be for my refugee claim to be accepted and give an opportunity to stay and contribute and one day also allow me to bring my family to safety and reunite… that would be the ultimate happiness,” he says.

Fellow Ocean Lady survivor, “Kogan” is also seeking refugee status in Canada. As a journalist trying to expose alleged war crimes against the Tamil minority, he knows how dangerous it is to speak out in Sri Lankia.

“My family was targeted and I was threatened with death,” he says.

Kogan, fearing for his life and the lives of his family paid $45,000 to be smuggled onto the Ocean Lady. Kogan admits he was breaking the law, but says his decision to get on that boat was a matter of life and death.

“While I ask the people to understand our situation, I would also like to apologize to the people of Canada,” he says.

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Less than a year after the arrival of the Ocean Lady, the MV Sun Sea arrived in Canada with 492 more Tamil asylum seekers. But instead of being welcomed with open arms, their arrival has sparked a political backlash.

The government is poised to pass Bill c-31, which will mean major changes for refugees who arrive in groups. Under that legislation, asylum seekers can be put in detention for a year with no review. Members of those groups would now lose the right to appeal if their refugee claim is rejected. And, even if their claim is accepted, they would have to wait five years to apply for permanent residency, and bring their families to Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says Canada’s lenient refugee laws have become an easy target for international criminals, and the changes are necessary.

“Let’s be blunt. The smugglers are basically the mafia in different countries. These are organized criminal networks that profit from people by putting them in danger,” he says. “Because that’s so dangerous, we’d say that’s a smuggling operation and we’d say that those people would be subject to detention for up to a year.”

But former Immigration and Refugee Board chair Peter Showler says the new laws punish the wrong people.

“They talk about human smugglers but who they’re punishing are the smuggled not the smugglers,” he says. “Going to mandatorily detain you for a year we’re not gonna let you see your families for 7 or 8 years…Candidly it’s an extraordinary blatant violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights.”

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